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Yoga for Upper Body Strength – Get Strong Without Lifting
Yoga has a lot of benefits, for both mental and physical health (1):
- Yoga boosts weight loss and helps with weight maintenance.
- Regular yoga practice improves cardiovascular health, including lowering blood pressure.
- Yoga improves self-image and makes you more mindful, which helps curb overeating.
- Doing yoga reduces anxiety and tension in the body.
- Yoga improves flexibility and posture.
- Yoga improves muscle strength.
It’s this last one that may trigger some skepticism in your training clients. Can yoga really build muscle? Isn’t it better to lift? Some clients may love standard strength training. For those who don’t, yes yoga can be a great alternative, especially for upper body strength.
Does Yoga Really Build Muscles and Strength?
Yoga is most well-known for its mental health benefits, like stress relief, and its ability to improve flexibility and posture. But anyone who has tried a yoga class knows that many poses require some strength. When you practice yoga regularly, that builds strength.
The way that yoga works to increase strength is through bodyweight training. As opposed to weightlifting, which uses added weights, bodyweight training uses just the weight of your own body. In bodyweight training, you are simply resisting the force of gravity on your body, but doing so can give big results.
Bodyweight training is a type of exercise termed closed-chain. This means you move your body through an exercise as compared to lifting or moving a weight, which is called an open-chain exercise. Studies indicate that closed-chain workouts build more strength.
In one study, participants who performed closed-chain, bodyweight exercises for six weeks saw an average increase in strength of 31 percent. Those who did open-chain workouts saw just a 13 percent improvement in strength measures (2).
The bottom line is that any kind of strength training is beneficial and a crucial part of overall fitness and wellness. However, if you have clients that resist traditional lifting and strength workouts, there are many reasons to try yoga instead.
For working with weights, you can use free weights or machines, but is one better than the other? This ISSA post has the answers.
Yoga for Upper Body Strength – The Best Yoga Poses
With so many benefits of practicing yoga, and the ability of this kind of training to improve muscle strength, why wouldn’t you do it. Many yoga poses focus on positioning the legs and building lower body strength. There are also poses that really work the wrists, arms, shoulders, chest, and upper back. Here are some of the best poses and movements from yoga that build upper body strength.
For more information about how to use yoga for full-body strength training, check out this ISSA post.
Downward Dog and Variations
Downward-facing dog pose is popular for good reason. It’s easy for anyone to do and it provides a great stretch through the legs and lower back. It also requires arm strength in order to hold it. Variations on the move give you extra upper body strength work.
To do the downward dog pose, plant your hands firmly on the ground, about shoulder-width apart. Walk the feet back and lift the hips. Just holding this position works the arms and shoulders, but you can try some moves to build more strength:
- With your head down, bend at the elbows and raise back up. Like a variation of a push-up, this works the shoulders.
- With arms straight, lift the right leg as high as possible while still keeping it straight. Hold and then repeat with the other leg.
- Take this to dolphin pose by doing downward dog with your forearms pressed into the floor instead of your palms. This is a good shoulder stretch.
Try this easy pose to strengthen the upper back. Lying on your stomach and with your arms straight and close to your sides, lift your head, shoulders, and chest. It can take some practice to get flexible in this position, so don’t push it too hard initially. Hold and repeat. You can also lift the legs to include a lower back and glute strengthening move.
Like a plank, chaturanga pose really works the triceps in particular. In straight arm plank position, bend the elbows to 90 degrees. Tuck them in close to the body. You should feel this in your triceps and forearms.
This is another pose and movement that will really work the triceps and shoulders. It also stretches and opens the chest. Sitting on the floor, put your hands down behind your back, palms down and with your fingers pointing forward. With knees bent and feet shoulder-width apart, lift the hips and squeeze the glutes. Hold and repeat.
Scale Pose – Modified
You can work your way up to scale pose. This is not for beginners, but a modification is a great place to start and strengthens the shoulders and entire arm. For the actual pose, sit cross-legged, press the palms into the floor on either side, and lift your body off the floor. To modify, use wooden blocks to each side and press up from these. Hold the pose.
Crow Pose with Modifications
This is another fairly advanced move that really works the arms. Modifications will help you work up to it. To do the full pose, squat with feet a few inches apart. Spread the knees wider and lean forward to press the palms of your hands on the floor so that your arms are against your shins.
Continuing to lean forward, your shins will move toward your armpits as you lift your feet off the ground. Your knees should be pressed into the backs of your arms. Hold the pose for a full arm workout. Use these modifications to work up to the full pose:
- Put your feet on wooden blocks for a lift assist.
- Put a block in front of you and rest your forehead on it as you develop better balance.
- Do the pose with elbows bent so that the arms act like a shelf for the legs. This lowers the center of gravity, making balancing easier.
On your back with knees bent and feet shoulder-width apart, bend your arms back behind your shoulders, palms on the floor. Press the hands and feet firmly down to lift the rest of the body. You can hold this pose or turn it into a type of push-up. Straighten the arms as much as possible and then bend at the elbows to really fire up the shoulders and upper arms.
This is a real master move that requires strength and balance. It’s a great goal to work toward when developing upper body strength. Use a spotter, or be your client’s spotter, for the first attempts. Alternatively, use a wall to rest and support the legs. Before trying handstands, be sure there is nothing to crash into when you fall. And you likely will fall the first few times you try it.
Yoga is a great workout. It builds flexibility, improves balance, and yes, it builds strength. There are plenty of poses that require upper body strength. If you can work your client through these starting with those that are easier, you’ll help them get much stronger in the arms, shoulders, and back.
The ISSA now offers a Certified Yoga Instructor Course. Learn how to teach yoga and help clients improve strength and other fitness and health measures through this ancient practice.
1. Harvard Health Publishing. (2015, February). Yoga – Benefits Beyond the Mat. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/yoga-benefits-beyond-the-mat
2. Augustsson, J., Esko, A., Thomee, R., and Svantesson, U. (1998, January). Weight Training of the Thigh Muscles Using Closed vs. Open Kinetic Chain Exercises: A Comparison of Performance Enhancement. J. Orthop. Sports Phys. Ther. 27(1), 3-8. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9440034